The following Career Dispatches essay was written by Michael Beach of the Oscar-nominated “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
It was June 1986, and I was on set about to shoot a scene playing Wesley Snipes’ best friend in my first paid acting job, “Streets of Gold.” Two weeks after graduating from theater school, I was a professional actor with an agent, a SAG card, and a job. I was— surprise!—a drug dealer, and in the first scene I ever shot, I was asked to smoke a real cigarette because back then we didn’t have all the fake options there are today. I had never smoked before but wasn’t comfortable saying “no” on my first job. I inhaled once to test it out and coughed my ass off. So it was my first time on set, I had most of the lines, and I was asked to do something I was very uncomfortable doing. The pressure was real!
There are hundreds of acting, audition, and set lessons I’ve learned over my 33 years as a working actor. I’m going to share some bullet point tips with any young actors that might read this and find it helpful. I also have something to say to my younger self that I’m positive would have made a big difference over my time here in Hollywood.
I could write about knowing your character’s needs, obstacles, and actions, and about making sure those choices are packed with life-and-death stakes—but haven’t we heard enough of that already? Maybe not if you’re a young actor, but I will say this:
- Ultimately, find the most direct way to manipulate yourself. If you’re not loving the painful, sometimes arduous process of discovering how to best connect to your character, your fellow actors, and the script, you might’ve made the wrong career choice. But this process could take a lifetime because acting is not a science. It’s also not just about how you feel. It’s a craft that requires more than being able to cry. Remember that!
- Prepare your ass off so you can go into that intimidating room and be bold.
- Your time in the room is YOUR time.
- The people in that room want you to be good because it makes their jobs easier.
Tips for being on set:
- Always be on time—simple, but trust me: It needs to be said.
- Come out of your trailer when the PA/AD calls you because the crew is waiting and almost without exception they work longer and harder than you do.
- You are no more special than anyone else on set, so don’t act like you are.
- When you are unsure or uncomfortable about something—whether it be sex scenes, stunts, fire arms, or even something like smoking—speak up. In 1986, I ended up telling first-time director Joe Roth that I didn’t want to inhale because I didn’t smoke, and he said, “OK, don’t inhale.” All the pressure I put on myself lifted. Thanks, Joe. Of course, after every puff I took, the smoke just hung around my face.
Tips for the business:
This is where my younger self needed the most advice. I told myself I didn’t care about fame or money because my acting ability would bring me the respect and opportunity I needed. So every time I was in a project where I could have benefited from added publicity, I didn’t take advantage of it. I wanted to be what I thought was a “real” actor. This was a young man’s ego and naivetéé about how the business works getting in my own way. Exposure brings greater opportunities for more dynamic work. And bigger paychecks would be nice, too! So:
- Sell yourself—tastefully.
So how do you condense 33 years of experience into 600 words of advice? You don’t. Please accept these tidbits in place of the year-long conversation it’d actually take.
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